As I sat in the cinema next to best friend Lynne, both of us with our hands over our eyes through a particularly scary moment in ‘A Quiet Place Part II’, I thought, “Why do we put ourselves through this?”
Horror stories and movies have been around for decades. Names like Stephen King, John Carpenter, Wes Craven and Eli Roth are instantly recognisable, even to those who have second thoughts about watching a flick described as featuring ‘mild peril’ (I love that term).
In the ‘50s and ‘60s, Hammer Film Productions rolled out one scary picture after the next, keeping the likes of Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee in shekels for some time. Vincent Price was also an icon of the gothic horror genre, starring in such classics as ‘House of Wax’, ‘House of Usher’, and ‘House on Haunted Hill’.
Lots of houses.
So, horror has been popular for a while and, looking at the box office, it won’t be dying off anytime soon.
I was always drawn to the stories and I don’t know why, because I was a right fraidy cat when I was a kid. I remember I couldn’t sleep for nights in one of our early homes, as I kept hearing a monster somewhere in the building. After insisting to my parents that we were all in imminent danger, they finally tracked down the would-be unearthly creature. It was the washing machine.
We moved to Cayman in 1975 and, a number of years later, bought a house from an older couple who left many books behind. ‘The Amityville Horror’ film was released in 1979, and I wanted to see it, but there was no way mum and dad were going to allow it. However, thanks to a happy coincidence, it was available in book form in our newly acquired library. I squirrelled it away, and read voraciously, finishing it in a couple of days.
I’m sure you can guess the rest. I absolutely terrified myself, as one’s imagination is far worse than anything one sees on the screen. For nights in a row, I huddled up next to my mother in my parents’ bed because, as we all know, evil creatures are no match for mums protecting their children.
Apparently not willing to learn the lesson, I managed to catch a showing of ‘The Blob’ at a friend’s house later that same year. The 1958 film, starring Steve McQueen, about an alien ball of gelatinous goo that grew as it consumed everything in its path, rocked me to my very core. Two hours of watching killer Jell-O lay waste to towns and crowds had a profound effect on my psyche. The fact that it could squeeze itself through any small hole or fissure, only to reassemble on the other side into a giant, red, volleyball of death, was what really bothered me.
In those days, I was sharing a bedroom with my sister, Gabrielle, who woke up in the middle of the night, not understanding why it felt like a furnace. What she didn’t appreciate was that I was trying to save our lives by closing all the windows and stuffing a towel underneath the bedroom door. So what if we cooked in our beds? The most important thing was that The Blob would give up after finding no easy access to us, and hopefully go on to absorb a less prepared, unlucky soul.
Despite these childhood experiences, my love affair with all things creepy did not diminish. I devoured Stephen King books, and read a goodly number of Dean Koontz and James Herbert novels. Doing so was fine in the daylight, but when night set in, it was a different story. Like any addiction, there were sacrifices. Mine was being unable to sleep with the lights off. I’d try, but then that imagination of mine would set in. Quotes from King’s books didn’t help, like, “The thing under my bed waiting to grab my ankle isn’t real. I know that, and I also know that if I’m careful to keep my foot under the covers, it will never be able to grab my ankle.”
I recall watching the 1990 miniseries of ‘It’ with my younger brother, Michael. The new films with Bill Skarsgård are good, but I don’t know that you could beat Tim Curry as Pennywise the Clown. We made ourselves watch it in the dark, and when a family member unexpectedly walked into the living room, we jumped out of our skins. Good times.
‘Jaws’, ‘Poltergeist’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Alien’, ‘The Omen’… I’ve seen ‘em all. I never got into the ‘Nightmare on Elm Street’ series, but I did watch the first ‘Halloween’ with Jamie Lee Curtis. I was also not a huge fan of the ‘Friday the 13th’ anthology. Well, who could keep up? There are no fewer than 12 films (so far). Jason really will not go away. Surely, they’ll have to go to 13; I mean, ‘Friday the 13th Part 13’?? It writes itself!
I have to say that ‘Jeepers Creepers’ gave me a turn. When the character of Darry (Justin Long) is down in that horrible basement-type-place and sees a ring on a body’s finger that says ‘Wheaton Valley High’… I think my heart genuinely stopped for a moment there. The film is about this ghastly creature – dressed like an ungodly wrangler in a multi-layered, long oilskin slicker and hat – that drives around in a murky truck and accelerates its victims’ removal from this mortal coil.
I’ll never forget a marvellous line in Roger Ebert’s review of ‘House of Wax’, the 2005 remake, starring, of all people, Paris Hilton: “… an ominous confrontation with a slack-jawed local man who drives a pickup truck, an innocent and utilitarian vehicle that in horror movies is invariably the choice of the depraved”.
Such a fabulous observation. It completely applies to ‘Jeepers Creepers’ and myriad other movies about murderous, unstoppable entities.
I’ve realised, as I’ve become older, that I prefer horror films with genuine thrills and surprises, where you are somewhat left to using your imagination, rather than outright gore. That was what worked so well with ‘Alien’, where you barely saw the creature in its full glory until the end, and ‘Jaws’, where, again, the shark (or ‘Bruce’, as he was called on set) wasn’t completely revealed until the last quarter. The likes of ‘Saw’ and other slasher films just aren’t my cup of tea, particularly when movie makeup and effects are so advanced these days.
One thing that does help me accept horror films as fantasy, rather than real life, is the reaction of the characters to the phenomena happening around them. I don’t know how many movies I’ve seen where something unexplainable happens in a house – like a weird noise; or goo running down the walls; or a chair moving on its own – and the family think it’s odd or unnerving, but decide to stay. I swear, would ANYONE stick around after that?
I don’t care how much money I’d spent on a property. If I saw so much as a pencil slowly rolling across a table with no logical explanation as to how it’s happening, I would be running out the door, howling, never to return.
Luckily, nothing like that has happened so far in my house, or anywhere else I’ve lived, save the demon washing machine unpleasantness… but I’m still keeping my foot under the covers, just in case.